Where now for anti-poverty politics?

Did you see Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You or Channel 4’s Growing up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids? The first, based on real life, painted an unbearably painful picture of the impact that stress can have on family life when both parents are struggling in jobs that do not provide financial security in the ‘land of zero-hours vassalage and service-economy serfdom’[1]. The second, also devastating, brought home the realities of grinding, anxiety-inducing poverty through the eyes of children and their mothers. In both cases, rooted in lived experience, they told us more about the reality of the UK’s endemic poverty and insecurity than anything said during the Election campaign.  

There was talk about so-called ‘left behind’ places (which are of course important and require investment) but not really about the people who live in them and elsewhere who have been impoverished and marginalised over the past decade to the extent that, according to the Social Metrics Commission, over four million people are living at least 50 per cent below the poverty line. Yet when nearly a third of children are being raised in poverty, they hardly constitute a tiny minority as Rachel Wolf, co-author of the Tory manifesto, seems to believe:  ‘the vast majority of people are not poor or wealthy. They are competent, good parents…They work and contribute to society – financially and in other ways’[2].  So, people in poverty aren’t good parents? Don’t work (though most live in households with at least one wage coming in) or contribute to society in other ways? This is just the kind of attitude that serves to shame and other people in poverty. The Channel 4 documentary ended with these words from Rose, a young child: ‘The fact that people so look down on people with less money is very sad because everyone’s equal [pause] apparently’.  Her telling observation serves as a reminder that we need a poverty politics of recognition & respect as well as of redistribution.   

The Tory manifesto itself wasn’t exactly encouraging: ‘we will continue our efforts through the tax and benefits system to reduce poverty, including child poverty’ (with some tweaks to universal credit and an end to the four-year benefit freeze, which was due to end anyway).  So far those ‘efforts’ have had the reverse effect, with child poverty projected by the Resolution Foundation to rise to 34 per cent by 2023-4, by which time total social security spending will be around £34 billion a year lower than had the cuts not been imposed.  While social security isn’t the only factor in poverty levels, and a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy at both national and local levels has to go much wider, it does play a crucial role.  At present, the social security system is all too often aggravating poverty and insecurity rather than fulfilling its objective of preventing them. 

This means that in the short term we face an urgent task of defence and mitigation to try to prevent the situation getting even worse. While this is not Compass’ role, I hope we can support those doing this crucial defensive work. The new government’s position on social security will provide an acid test of Johnson’s claim to the One Nation Conservative mantle, with the promise that ‘we are going to unite and level up’, and his attempt to distance himself from the austerity policies of the governments of which he was a part. There needs to be at a minimum:

  • an urgent review of the impact of structural cuts such as the bedroom tax, benefit cap and two-child limit and of the workings of universal credit and disability benefits;
  • a commitment to above-inflation increases in working-age and children’s benefits to make good some of the cut in real value due to the freeze – amounting to an average £380 a year for couples with children according to IPPR (as called for by the Work & Pensions Committee in the last parliament).  

It is important too, that following Labour’s post-mortem, the positive stance the manifesto took on social security (a welcome contrast with the New Labour years) is not abandoned. Although it didn’t really go further than making good much of the damage wreaked by the Tories (other than a throwaway reference to a pilot of a universal basic income scheme) its inclusive tone and emphasis on dignity, implicitly recognised social security’s status as a human right (explicit in Scotland’s social security legislation). This needs to be built on in a more fundamental review of social security (as had originally been promised), which should also place greater emphasis on how social security can prevent poverty and insecurity, thereby underlining the manifesto’s message that it is for all of us, not just those already in poverty.

We can take encouragement from a number of initiatives in civil society that are debating the future of social security. They include both reviews by more established organisations such as the FabiansIPPR and CPAG and also more ‘bottom up’ projects, promoted by people in poverty themselves. The latter include the Commission on Social Security led by Experts by Experience and Poverty2Solutions (a coalition of three grassroots organisations driven by people with direct experience of poverty: ATD Fourth World, Dole Animators and Thrive Teesside). The growing recognition, in some quarters at least, of the need to listen to the voices of people in poverty themselves and involve them in anti-poverty politics and policy development is one source of hope in today’s otherwise grim landscape. Such participation is crucial to an anti-poverty politics of recognition & respect alongside that of radical redistribution. 

Ruth Lister is chair of the Compass board, a Labour peer and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University. 

[1] Peter Bradshaw’s ‘Sorry We Missed You review’ in The Guardian, 16 May 2019

[2] Rachel Wolf’s ‘I co-wrote this Conservative manifesto. And so can say that its focus was on neither the rich nor the poor’ in ConservativeHome, 16 December 2019

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